Originally published on Atlas Obscura:

Ask a writer to describe Los Angeles and immediately one is presented with images of bubbling asphalt, toxic particulates, the unnatural white light, chapped lips from low humidity, the screeching Santa Anas, cicada’s chaffing wings, the way nature—or what’s left of the ‘natural’ world—encroaches on the idea of the city…

Los Angeles, aptly defined by its spatial proximities, the specificities of its terrain and psycho-spiritual meteorological qualities, demands a certain compliance of mind and body from its living inhabitants. It’s no surprise, then, that some think its resident dead should receive commensurate attention.

At a forensics workshop at Cal State last year, I met Dr. Donald Johnson, professor and expert on criminalistics whose research focuses on crime scene investigation, reconstruction (homicides and sexual assaults), and forensic biology. He indicated that Los Angeles would benefit from its own Forensic Anthropological Research Facility (FARF) so that analysts could document with exactitude how bodies decompose under Southern California’s specific climatic conditions.


FARFs (or “Body Farms” as they are colloquially termed after the success of Patricia Cornwell’s 1994 namesake forensic novel) allow practitioners to better understand the human decomposition process in relation to environmental variables. At present there are six operational facilities around the U.S., relying on both human and pig corpses for data collection. The first of its kind began at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1987, followed by similar projects at Western Carolina University (2006), Texas State University (2008), Sam Houston State University (2010), Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (2012), and Colorado Mesa University (2013).

While the general biological breakdown of human matter is universal, the rate of decomposition can be significantly affected by factors such as temperature, humidity, sepsis, trauma, clothing, water exposure/dehydration, submersion, insects, scavengers, carnivores and rodents, etc. Real-world concerns play out in the realm of the dead, so active research on FARFs across the U.S is vital, contributing to the development of new techniques of cadaver information retrieval, which are in turn implemented by law enforcement. The ability to accurately define the post-mortem interval (PMI), for example, provides medico-legal agencies with a rough time-frame for expiration, often enabling them to narrow a suspect pool. At a time when forensic evidence in the courtroom weighs heavily on the outcome of a case, the legitimacy of data and dexterity with which law enforcement employ it is paramount. Body farm research, then, is a valuable intermediary between forensic anthropology studies and law enforcement application, providing protocol for the standardization of supporting data to assist in live casework.


Why L.A.?

Last week (Friday 18th March), Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Mark Fajardo resigned, citing “turmoil within the department” and severe understaffing as reasons for his departure. In an interview he explained that his funding, allocated by the Board of Supervisors, had been restricted, preventing new hires to fill the current shortage in staff, thus resulting in a backlog of 180 bodies piled up in the county morgue. The L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner oversees around 4000 square miles of Los Angles County land and is legally mandated to determine the circumstance, manner, and cause of all violent, sudden, or unusual deaths occurring therein. They work with 52 law-enforcement agencies to process over 60,000 deaths per year, at least 20,000 of which end up as Coroner Case deaths. Their role is vast and unsurprisingly, a robust workforce of well-trained, highly skilled criminalists and physicians is paramount in maintaining high standards of timely post-mortem processing. For a department that has struggled to achieve this in the past (audit reports dating to 2002 reveal internal fiscal irregularities, though the department has come a long way since the mismanagement that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, with severe autopsy backlogs, insect infestations in the morgue and a double-billing scam by employees), could a local, state-of-the-art Forensic Research Facility help attract new workers and turn things around for the future?

In a presentation given by Special Operations Coroner Lieutenant Elissa Fleak at a meeting of the L.A. County Commission on Local Government Services in 2014, Lt. Fleak cited that with 7 unique microclimates (Coastal, Inland Coastal, Valley, Scrub Forest, Mountain, High Desert, Low Desert) and the largely unstudied soil content of the region, there is tremendous forensic research benefit to establishing a local facility, with a proposed focus on cadaver identification processes and wound pattern/tool mark analysis. This type of facility would situate Los Angeles amongst other high-ranking forensic hotspots. A local facility would also enable the L.A ME-C to provide state-certified training in grave location, grave excavation, and skeletal recovery of human remains (Indiana Bones, L.A. county’s cadaver dog is the primary tool at present). With the aim of expanding research in forensic and related fields, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), UCLA, Cal State LA, CA State Coroner, and the DOJ, amongst others, would support the facility. In particular, students of the robust and renowned forensic departments at Cal State L.A. and UCLA would benefit from first-hand observation of the complex interaction among species within an ecosystem where a body is found, documenting the effects of regional biota on corpses.

Practicalities of an L.A. Forensic Anthropology Research Facility

Were L.A. to move forward with plans for such a facility, integral next steps would be to secure land, implement a body donation program, and to propose, review and approve satisfactory research projects and parameters. The procurement of land is controversial; few people are comfortable with the aesthetics or odors of death, especially from their kitchen window. On a practical level, soil drainage, water contamination, and attraction of wildlife are important considerations. Developing a body-donation program is less onerous—Knoxville’s facility has over 2,000 pre-donors on file—and with a contemporary emphasis on sustainable living, it makes sense that ecologically friendly, scientifically advantageous post-mortem practices are on the increase, with people turning away from conventional (and toxic) funerary practices.

So what are the options for Southern Californian residents right now who want to put their body to use after death? Since California has no truly green “conservation” burial grounds (land parcels large enough to be considered a valid and enduring conservation effort), the non-profit Funerary Consumer Alliance of Southern California (FCASC) has put together a list of the 5 “next-best” choices for a green burial which include: ‘One Legacy’, a non-profit agency enabling organ/tissue donation (you can even register through Facebook); UCLA’s Medical Center for organ donation; or having your body shipped to the Forensic Farm in Knoxville, TN, to leech slowly from a shallow grave before your memorialization in the The Forensic Data Bank.

Emma Kemp is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.


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